How to train your MINI.


Day 1:

Do you remember that giddy feeling on Christmas morning as you open the presents Santa has left you? Or that fervent anticipation of going on a first date?  That intoxicating feeling of bliss mixed with hints of dread and disbelief. Coming home to a little red MINI had me dancing with these emotions as it sat in the driveway. 

This R53 Cooper S was a late build model and had belonged to my cousin Zara. I knew it well, having helped her buy it eight years ago, and now it was mine. I wrote my thesis on the MINI so considered myself an expert, yet being this close to one had me nervous. 

What if it is not as good as I imagined? What are the running costs like? God, does it smell like a girl? (Sorry Zara, I know you smell awesome, but in a girly way). 

When training your MINI, the first thing to do is give it a name. It's a cute car. Smiling grill, big headlights and all that. If it was an animal I think it would be a koala. All cute and cuddly. I tell it I am going to call it "Poppy". That makes me smile and I decide to get a closer look at the car. I pop the clamshell bonnet, and go straight for the coolant expansion tank. In this model, they are notorious for leaking. There is coolant in the tank and it looks well preserved. I start the engine and turn on the running lights. One is dead. I look at the light assembly and there is not a lot of room to work the light free. After about twenty minutes of scratched knuckles, I consult YouTube and discover you have to twist and pull the light out. Another fifteen minutes and the light is not budging. I ring my father and ask him if he changed the bulb recently as the car had passed the NCT (National Car Test) the week before. Dad asked if I had tapped the light. I said no, and proceeded to tap it and it came on, as if my magic. It must be a loose connection. I've been checking this little light constantly over the last week and a half. Onlookers must think I am crazy. 


Day 2:

My first real trip in the car. It is early in the morning but there is a lot of traffic as this is a few days before Xmas. It is cold and the MINI feels very stiff. The steering is heavy at parking  speed. I hear the power steering pump whine, but I know that is a characteristic of the car. It makes me smile, but I also know they have a reputation for failing. The six-speed "Getrag" gearbox feels broken. I'm pushing it into first gear and it is not moving. I stomp on the clutch and it also feels very heavy. This car is bloody awful. I'm worried. 

I take "Poppy" to the car wash and have the heavy dirt washed off. I then go to my local supermarket (Nutgrove) and the car park is full. I'm in the MINI, its whining away to itself fighting every input I make. I smell a faint whiff of coolant. "Poppy" has the chrono package, which includes a temperature gauge. I'm looking at the needle rise and I hear no sign of the fan coming on. I have a fear of overheating cars. Coolant leaks can lead to head gasket warping and failure. I turn the engine off and wait for the traffic to move. Ten minutes later, I grab the first space I find and pop the bonnet. The coolant tank looks fine and there is no leaks. The fan is now on and still cooling the engine. I try to buy coolant but leave the closest garage angry and nervous. I have to get home so I jump into the MINI and pray. The needle settles into its middle position and remains there. I'm getting madder as the needle doesn't move. Is this car messing with me? 

Day 3: 

I take the MINI to my mechanic and he greets me with a bemused look on his face. He had checked the car only a week ago and all was fine. I tell him about the overheating scare. He asks if the warning light came on. "No" I say, but the gauge was rising. "Then everything is fine" the mechanic assures me. This car is messing with me. I learn not to trust the gauges. 

Day 4:

We get lost on the M50 on the way home form another supermarket. I hate Christmas shopping. I have to be on a phone call in an hour and "Poppy" is fighting me. The clutch is not biting and the steering is still heavy. I'm trying to be gentle and am getting no feedback. I turn off the road and change me shoes. My boots are too  large and I cannot feel the clutch peddle. I have my gym bag in the back seat. My gym shoes are smaller and lighter, and they transform the whole experience. I learn you have to be very direct, almost forceful with your inputs in this car. It doesn't respond to half measures. I grab it by the scruff of the neck and drive it as assertively as I can. Everything begins to gel. The car moves quickly, and  the supercharger is beginning to come on song too. The gear changes need to be quick and direct. I get home happy and exhausted. Jesus, that was hard work. I learn the MINI Cooper S is NOT just a cute girly car. This thing, like a koala, has claws and is rather vicious when it wants to be. 

Day 5:

I'm beginning to get "Poppy". For me, the best way to learn about a car is to wash it. I take it down to the hangar and get to work. After getting a stone chip in the windscreen, we arrive at the hanger. What follows is a seven-hour wash, wax and polish. I love this process as it allows me to learn about every panel on the car. I now know every dent, scratch and stone chip. After the second coat of wax, I the car sit for an hour before applying the gloss sealant coat. I have a pill of rags and they all smell of various wax products. I'd like to think the car is warming to me and appreciating this effort. I learn that there is not a shinier, happier MINI in Ireland.

Day 6:

As I'm leaving the gym, I get a text to get take out for dinner. I'm feeling a little frustrated today. I have been trying to find a nice Irish boyfriend and I've had no success. The lads in the gym have real "Irish heads" on them and I am finding many of them rather attractive. As I approach the MINI I smile as it is still very shiny. Then it hits me. I'm a single, broke, middle-aged gay man in a bright red MINI. Crap, maybe its the car!

The roads are unusually quiet and every light we come to is green. I've begun to trust "Poppy" and decide to have a little fun. As we exit the car park the doors lock automatically Gotta love the BMW technology. The supercharger whines most under fast acceleration in the lower gears. The car squirms slightly but finds its line and off we go. I drive around for forty minutes before stopping for food. In that time the car and myself really click. FINALLY!

 The Cooper S is one of the most demanding vehicles I have ever driven and it is a batsh*t crazy car. How it escaped BMW development in this form baffles me. Despite all the flaws, I cannot help but laugh out loud. The car is happiest scampering around under full acceleration. The multi-link rear axle keeps it on the road and the heavy steering and six-speed box give it the scope to dance on the tarmac. Most of all, it involves the driver, and that is what makes this a special little car. 

Day 7:

So, what have I learnt? Many things.

  1. I am not an expert on the MINI. I know very little in fact.
  2. The car is immense fun but demanding as hell.
  3. It can be relaxed but it will never be a relaxing car, if that makes sense.
  4. I LOVE looking at it. Seriously, I could sit for hours just drinking in every little detail.

Ultimately though, I was wrong. You don't train your MINI. The MINI trains you.